While locking my backdoor, I groaned. Time for another monotonous workday. Despite my dread, a flicker of hope that today something fantastic would happen persisted. I'd come into some extra book money or get a nice compliment or maybe something really exciting like aliens visiting earth would happen.
As I began my descent of the stairs, my foot caught on something and almost sent me flying down them. I grabbed the handrails desperately, and took quick, panicked breaths as I stabilized myself. My eyes dropped down seeking the culprit. A package? For me?
I picked up the pale blue box and sat on the top stair. I didn’t order anything, and no one ever sends me anything. According to the return address, the box came from my mom. Feeling the package, I noticed it had a distinct book feel. My heart seized. Was my mom the greatest mom in the whole wide world? Did she get me that fancy limited edition hardcover manga volume I had been so eager to get? I ripped open the packaging paper ready to jump in the air with excitement. In my head, I rehearsed my thank you speech. I already made plans to somehow sneak in pages under my work desk. Perhaps I could hide the book in a binder and make it look like I was perusing important files. Two books! Did she get two volumes?
“Be Your Own Superhero: How to Rescue Yourself from Depression’s Dark Abyss with Super Positivity? What the…? The Big Guide to Shedding Big Pounds? Aw, c’mon mom! What is this?” I grabbed the books tightly and stomped over to my fire pit. I tossed them inside. Then I grabbed some propane from grill, poured it over the books, and started an out-of-control bonfire.
My suit wearing neighbor, Carl, saw me while heading towards his fancy red sports car, and asked, “What’re you doing?”
“Burning self help books,” I said and narrowed my eyes. Never would I have guessed I’d be a book burner. In a way it felt sinful. I looked up to see my neighbor staring at me with wide eyes.
“This is…I don’t even know. Man, you’ve really got to work out your issues.”
“Perhaps.” I shrugged. “But pages of pretentious bs won’t do that.”
“Fair enough.” He got into his car and drove away.
I waited for the flames to die down a bit and then sprayed them with a hose. Thick, steamy, white smoke filled the air. Now, I was late for work. Thanks, mom.
Sometimes I read stories about perfect timing. Someone would be running late for work and then it would turn out they missed some big catastrophe they might have normally been a part of. Maybe they encountered some bit of good luck. As I drove, I imagined my lateness rewarding me in some way. I’d walk in the office and one of my co-workers would be like, “Brendan, what happened? We were so worried! So glad you’re safe.”
When I pulled into work, my spot was taken. I didn’t know where to park because we had assigned spots, so I called the receptionist to ask for advice. I kept getting passed around and transferred until my call ended up at some answering machine. I’m not even sure whose. With a sigh, I gave up and parked at the park-and-ride down the street and walked. Look at that mom, I’m getting in some exercise like that stupid book probably said I needed.
When I finally got into work, I stealthily slipped into my cubicle. Well, I tried. I knocked over a few things, made some loud clanks and bangs, and muttered curses. No one noticed though. My boss walked by and seemingly assumed I had been there all morning. Relieved, I headed over to get a coffee. I heard my name around the corner and paused. Imagine how great it would be to hear them whispering something nice about me. Especially since it was a female’s voice who said my name. I stood against the wall and listened eagerly.
“Ugh, Brendan’s always such a downer. Being near him sucks the life out of me. Like an emotional vampire.”
“Wouldn’t you be depressed if you looked like that? He’s like a one and I didn’t even know ones existed.”
“Before him the ugliest person I knew was a five.” They laughed.
“He doesn’t have the personality to make up for it either.”
“Not at all. He’s duller than a brick.”
“Hey now. That’s not all bad. When I can’t sleep at night, I remember a conversation we had and pass right out.”
“He could bore anyone to sleep. It’s practically a superpower.”
My eyes burned and I stepped back to hide the noise of my sniffles. Luckily, the bathroom was close. I pushed through the door and locked myself in a stall. Don’t cry. That’ll make it so much worse. The tears came anyway. They thought I was a one. I guess that explained why no one responded to my dating profile.
Desperate for a distraction, I looked down at my phone. The only message was mom’s daily text of encouragement. Hope you’re having a great day, sweetie. Always remember how much I love you.
Normally I rolled my eyes and deleted these messages, but today I reread it several times. I even wrote back to tell her I loved her and hoped she had a good day too. This was something I never did. Maybe I had the face only a mother could love, as they say, but at least I had a mother who loved me. Some people don’t.
I pulled myself together and headed back to my desk. I’d be suffering from coffee withdrawal soon enough, but I couldn’t go near that break room. Instead, I lost myself in work.
Every day I imagined someone recognizing my hard work. They’d offer me a promotion and everyone in the office would cheer. They’d say things like, “Finally! Well deserved, man.” When I noticed an email from Susan, my insides lit up. Did I will this desire into reality?
The email informed me I made a typo earlier in a message on our staff chat, and that I should be more careful with my proofreading. For an office chat? I thought those were meant to be casual. Does she send emails to Dale every time he uses it to make a tasteless joke about the secret flask filled with tequila, he keeps in his desk to get him through the day?
I remind myself that I’ll be home soon. At home, I’ll kick my feet up on the couch. My cats, Guts and Casca, will curl up next to me. I’ll be able to read or watch tv and forget about this entire day. I’d laugh at my own jokes and have a great time with my best friend, me.
At the end of the day, I walked back to my car. The temperatures outside had increased while I sat in the cool air conditioned office, and my clothes were drenched in sweat by the time I got to the car. A traffic jam delayed my arrival at home by an hour. I didn’t get mad. I sat in the car imagining those perfect timing stories. Perhaps being in traffic saved me from dealing with a Jehovah witness at my door or one of those people surveying tv watching patterns.
When I pulled in the driveway, I saw Carl at his grill. He wore khakis and a polo, his version of sweatpants, I guess. His teen daughter was doing kickflips on her skateboard.
I stepped out of the car and locked the door.
“Hey, Bren! I got a question,” Delilah, his daughter yelled. She dropped the board and ran over. Carl looked up suspiciously.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“I need you to tell me the coolest manga series.”
“How do you─”
“From like all your t-shirts. Anyway, there’s this group of kids who are into it at school, and I want to impress them.”
“I have an idea. Hold on a minute.” I went into my house. The cats waited at the door meowing for food and giving me that look like they were starving to death. An hour delay in food was an eternity for them. I fed them quickly and went over to my bookshelves. I scanned and selected a few books, then brought them out to Delilah.
She looked them over and grinned. “These sound really cool. Do you think they’ll like them though?”
“I have no idea what they’ll like, but I think you would. That’s what matters.”
“Are you about to start one of those just-be-yourself lectures?” She teased.
“Well, it’s a solid message. If you like it and they do, that’s cool. If you disagree, that’s probably fine too. Those debates can be fun if everyone’s respectful. If they want to make fun of you for what you like, kick ‘em to the curb. No one should ever put you down. Especially for something you like. That’s silly.”
“Ok. Thanks. I’ll give them back soon.”
Delilah took the books and bolted towards the house. I noticed Carl had been listening in.
“Wholesome advice for a cynic like you,” he said.
“What makes you think I’m a cynic?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Burning self help books maybe.”
“I’m just tired of people thinking I need to be fixed.”
Carl nodded and looked at me in a strange way. It seemed like he might be realizing this bizarre alien next door was just a regular guy. Then again, I’m often wrong in interpreting how people think.
“Hey, why don’t you come over for burgers?” Carl asked.
“We’ve got plenty. I’ll even let you bring some scraps home for the cats.”
He knew I had cats?
“Well, who could turn down a free meal.”
“I haven’t seen Alice for a while. How’s she doing?” Alice was his wife. All I really knew about him was his family.
“Alice is gone.” Carl said with a surprising lack of emotion.
“Oh, I didn’t─”
“Ran off with some much younger man. Said I was too old and boring and all that. Her life was short, and she needed to have fun. I don’t see why fun couldn’t be with the family. Delilah and I have plenty of fun with board game nights and we started rock climbing at the gym. But…” Carl shrugged, and I could see moisture glossed over his eyes.
“Sounds like you’re the fun one to me,” I said, sincerely.
Maybe this was one of those perfect timing moments I’d been waiting for.